New exhibit from Chip Cooper compares south Alabama and CubaBy Chandler Padgett | 03/10/2016 9:57am
Chip Cooper's photo exhibit is on display at Kentuck Art Center. CW | Layton Dudley
Chip Cooper is a professional photographer who teaches with the Honors College and has worked with the University much of his life. He recently opened an exhibit at the Kentuck Art Center called “Familiarities” that showcases the similarities between the Black Belt and Cuba.
“My love affair with the Black Belt, the whole area is a spiritual experience for me,” Cooper said. “How do you define something that tugs at your heart, something that talks to your soul, you see and you connect with your brain? It’s just a total experience. I’ve photographed there for a long time. I go to Cuba, and it’s the same thing. The similarities there are more than the differences.”
Cooper became interested in photography as an undergraduate student at Alabama when he was told by an art teacher to take photographs because his drawing skills were bad. His mother gave him a camera, and his world changed.
“Today, I would be diagnosed with ADD,” Cooper said. “I was always seeing out of my peripheral vision. To look through a camera for the first time, it focused in a rectangle, and it was like ‘wow.’ I was able to take all of the visual chaos and just hone in on it. That led to a love affair with photography. I took courses here – I took graduate courses. And then I decided to be a professional photographer.”
Over the next decade or so, Cooper struggled to figure out his path in life. During his tenure as director of photography for the University, he got his first show, which was successful, and his career took off from there. After writing his first book two years later at the age of 36, Cooper decided to go to New York.
“Just needed to go to New York, get that out of the way, be turned down, at least I would’ve tried,” Cooper said. “I went to New York, 18 days stomping the pavement. On the 18th day, I got a book. And that really freed me up, cause I didn’t have to worry ‘am I good enough?’ I’m as good as I can be; I didn’t have to fight my ego. If I can get a book published here, from Tuscaloosa to New York, I can do anything.”
A few years ago, Cooper came back to teach at Alabama for the Honors College. He seeks to use his real world experience to mentor students and help them be successful.
“And this really ties back in to positive thinking, persistence, ingenuity, all the buzz words when I teach. What you’re going through is what I went through – it’s always this question ‘where am I going, am I good enough’ it eats your lunch,” Cooper said. “And it happens, but it takes a lot of hard work.”
Because of the experiences Cooper has had in his life, he places great importance on his role as a teacher.
“I know one of the great assets is being able to use my life experience to help someone else, and that’s probably even greater than the photography,” Cooper said. “Photography was that thing, when I screwed everything else up, photography was what I just did, and I’m lucky it just kept moving; it was the wonderful mistress for me.”
Despite this, Cooper’s relationship with his students is not one-way.
“I surround myself with really creative, savvy students that teach with me, that intern with me,” Cooper said. “I learn so much in my classes. When it comes to creativity, I’m the leader of the class, and my assistants are learning from me. When it comes to the technology that drives the creativity, these young people are the ones that help me. It’s a level of humility ... but this is where I’ve grown and continue to grow.”
After a long career, Cooper is still not satisfied and is always looking for more photos to take, more stories to tell. “Familiarities” is just one of the many. Pairing 28 photos of statues, vintage cars, aged buildings and nature, the exhibit is something that Cooper has wanted to do for some time.
“People ask me looking at the 28 photos, and it’s always ‘what’s your favorite?’ And I say all of them,” Cooper said. “And I say, the one I haven’t taken. It’s this quest, and it’s like a journey. And there’s so much to photograph. It’s what inspires me.”
Curtis Clark, the shop gallery manager at Kentuck Art Center, met Cooper when he worked for The University of Alabama Press and has known him for years. He worked with Cooper to make the exhibit, which runs through March, a reality.
“I retired in September; I said, ‘we need to get a show over here – would you be up for it?’” Clark said. “These are all photographs that haven’t been seen. He had this new group that he had taken recently, in the last six months I think he said. When you think about Cuba, you tend to think about Havana or city life, but it’s a big place. Havana’s just a little port there.”
In his most recent excursion to Cuba, the latest of more than a decade of work, Cooper worked with Julio Larramendi, a Cuban photographer, across the Cuban countryside. They covered the lives of campesinos, or rural people.
“We traveled for almost 12,000 miles in those three years, more than 400 towns – everywhere almost in Cuba,” Larramendi said. “He’s been to places that Americans, and not many Cubans, have been to before. The idea is to publish a book on those people – how they live, what they do, everything about them. We interviewed them, we lived with them for those months, and it was an amazing adventure.”
The lengthy stay in Cuba left its mark on Cooper as well.
“To walk into a farmer’s house that’s clean, very simple, they would offer me coffee, they would offer me something to eat,” Cooper said. “It was probably the most moving experiences that just kept coming. It gave me a level of humility. That led to me being able to see ... where we’ve come that we call the norm. When I was down there, thinking about them made me think about [America]. Photography has helped me understand the world I live in.”
Last Thursday, “Familiarities” opened at Kentuck. About 200 people were there – 50 of those were Cooper’s students, which Cooper said was the biggest compliment of all.
“I teach a photography class to non-art majors,” Cooper said. “As I start the class, I ask who here is creative. Out of 15 students, maybe one or two hands go up. At the end of the semester, I ask the question, and all the hands go up. It’s been a journey that I know will be successful. They might not be the most creative person, they might not be Picasso 2016, but you’ve had your own individual experience. And watching these kids grow at this level inspires me. So when I do my own work I think I’ve taken my work to another level. And I think the show kind of represents this new level.”